By: Anonymous Contribution
When your child discloses sexual assault or abuse to you--your world changes, and so does theirs. How can we, as parents, encourage our children to disclose? How do we process, protect, and cope as individuals and as parents? Let's talk about what it's like to look at a sexual abuse disclosure from your child through loving eyes. From processing, from protecting, from coping--to overcoming, together.
Words a parent never wants to hear out of their child, but words that are often heard, nonetheless:
“I am a victim of sexual assault.”
Children between the ages of seven and thirteen are the most vulnerable to child sexual abuse, yet it is estimated that only 38% of children ever disclose their sexual abuse, and 40% of those disclosures are made to peers, not parents. Though peer-group disclosure and support are important, so is parental disclosure and support.
Realizing this issue: What can we do, as parents, to encourage our children to report, and how can we process, protect, and cope with our children throughout the long journey from disclosure to recovery?
1. It’s your child’s story. Let them tell it at their own pace.
When I first heard my child tell me that they had been a victim of sexual abuse, I was flooded with questions and worries. Who did this? When? Where? What happened? Why? Naturally, you’re extremely concerned for the safety and well being of your child; especially after this disclosure. Of course, you want to know details. But you must remember, that this is your child’s story—and that sharing details is their choice, not yours. Disclosing any sexual abuse, to anybody, is a difficult task for anyone—of any age—and repeating details can be re-traumatizing to children. So, no matter your immediate instinct to demand details, be conscious of your child’s needs: for someone to listen, and for someone to let them share their story, at their own pace.
2. It’s not your fault. It’s not your child’s fault. You’re not a bad parent, even if you feel like one.
Beyond the instinct to ask for details, after the initial shock—you’re met with a sinking feeling.
What did I do wrong? I failed my child. I failed as a parent. How could this have happened?
Just as it is not the victim’s fault, it’s not their parent’s fault. The perpetrator is responsible, the perpetrator is accountable for their actions. Remember. When you blame yourself, you misplace the blame that belongs on the offender.
Honestly, I still deal with these questions and these thoughts—it’s reasonable to wonder what could have been done to prevent it, and where you went wrong. This takes some time, but the realization will come, and will stay: This is not my child’s fault. This is not my fault. What matters now, is that I believe them, I support them, and I am here.
1. Explain your actions. Guide them into the unknown, with utmost certainty that they will make it out.
You’ve heard your child’s story. You’ve listened. You wonder: What’s next?
Your child is wondering the exact same thing. Your child is likely to be scared, and unsure of what’s to come—and it’s your job to lead them into the great unknown that is reporting to law enforcement or Child Protective Services. It’s okay to be unsure, it’s okay to be scared, and it’s okay to be worried. This is new, uncharted territory for both you and your child—find the way, and guide them with care.
Tell them what’s going to happen next, even if you’re unsure of the next step. Learn and overcome, together. By explaining the process to your child as you go along, you armor them with knowledge and comfort. When your child feels heard, when they feel believed, they feel protected. Describe the process: “We’ll be going to the police station, now—to file a police report.” “They’re going to interview and ask you questions.” Remind them: “It will be hard, but even more: it will be okay.”
2. Your child is a survivor. Hold them close, with caution—shield their heart from any more pain.
To revisit a previous point: It’s your child’s story. Let them tell it at their own pace.
Your child has survived unimaginable trauma, and the courage and strength it required to tell you their story is immense. It’s not easy for them to tell it, it’s not easy for them to remember the pain. Once you report, your child will be expected to tell their story to many others: police detectives, attorneys, victim advocates, and more—and though they are required to recount their stories when reporting or testifying in trial, they are not required to share any other time they do not want to.
My child was asked countless times to recount their story to people—family members or non-related individuals. And though it may seem like “just a story” to some people, it’s a very personal aspect of your child’s life—and they should never feel pressured to share unnecessarily. So, always remind them: Your story is your own, and nobody else’s—protect your heart, for you have already been through so much.
1. You’re not alone. Support and be supported. Heal.
Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Every eight minutes, that American is a child. That means, for every child that is sexually assaulted and discloses, there are parents and family members that are on a journey to find justice and to heal, just like you. Your child is not alone, and neither are you.
Once my child disclosed to me, it felt easy to recluse and to isolate them and our family from the outside world--attempting to heal on our own. It felt as if our family had become separate from the rest of society, as an “other.” Looking back, though, I see that the community of youth sexual assault survivors and their parents is strong; you are a part of this community, and it is a welcoming one. As a parent, you need support as much as your child does—be strong, but be tender. Be with friends, be with family, and be surrounded with love. You can heal privately, but don’t overlook the benefits of supporting and being supported by others who share your experiences.
Remember, everyone copes differently—but nobody has to do it alone. So, make sure to tell your child, “You are not alone. You are never alone—I am here for you, always. If you will look, you will find a supportive community of others with shared experiences—once you find it, support and be supported: for one cannot pour from an empty glass.”
2. It won’t always be easy. But it will always be okay.
Will it ever be okay? Seeing your child endure the residual pain of trauma is almost unbearable—if you could take it all away, you would, in a heartbeat. You’d endure all the pain and sadness, just to see them smile and feel unbroken, once more. I know the feeling. I lived the feeling.
Recovery can last a lifetime, and it’s not an easy journey for your child, or yourself. At times, it feels immeasurable and impossible—the pain, the sadness may seem to never go away, and it feels like you can do nothing to absolve your child of the suffering. Though it feels impossible, remember: You watched them take their first steps, they stumbled and fell, they cried, but they got up and stood strong. It only takes time, patience, and love. Offer these freely—be their constant in a world that, at times, feels unstable and unsafe.
Your child will ask, “When will I be happy, again? When will I feel whole, again? When will I be okay?”
Always answer softly, with patience: “You have survived so much. You have made it this far. It has not always been an easy journey, but I promise, you will overcome. I have seen you grow into the beautiful person you are today, and you will continue, you will be okay, and you will be whole. I promise, my dear. You have survived, and one day, you will thrive.”